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monasticism (mənăsˈtĭsĭzəm, mō–), form of religious life, usually conducted in a community under a common rule. Monastic life is bound by ascetical practices expressed typically in the vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience, called the evangelical counsels. Monasticism is traditionally of two kinds: the more usual form is known as the cenobitic, and is characterized by a completely communal style of life; the second kind, the eremitic, entails a hermit's life of almost unbroken solitude, and is now rare (see hermit).
Monasticism in general has played an important role in Buddhism (including Tibetan Buddhism), Jainism, Islam, and Christianity. Practitioners of monasticism in ancient times included the vestal virgins of Rome, the Jewish Essenes, the Therapeutae of Egypt, and the Peruvian virgins of the sun. The life of the Shakers had many analogies with monasticism. The Reformation saw the sudden end of monasticism in the Protestant countries of Europe. The Oxford movement, however, reintroduced religious orders into the Church of England in the 19th cent., and after World War II renewed interest in monasticism led to the establishment of a Protestant monastery at Taizé, France.
Monasticism in the Eastern Church
Christian monasticism had its origin in the Egyptian deserts in the 3d–4th cent. with the anchorites, who sought perfection in the most extreme asceticism. Most famous of these hermits was St. Anthony, who is called the father of monasticism. From among loose associations of these hermits, the monk St. Pachomius organized (c.320) the first cenobitic community. Somewhat similar was the laura—cells arranged into a monastic village, sometimes of very great size.
Uniformity was gradually wrought in Eastern monasticism by the rules of St. Basil the Great. He favored the cenobitic style and stressed manual labor and obedience in opposition to the extravagances of much of early monasticism (see, e.g., Simeon Stylites, Saint). Monasticism in the East has changed little since the 4th cent.; the monks devote their day to lengthy liturgies and simple work. They do not usually become priests and do not value learning. In contrast to the development in the West, Eastern monks do not belong to different orders with specialized functions; the monasteries or lauras are basically alike in nature and autonomous in organization (see Basilian monks). Mount Athos is the great center of monasticism in the Eastern Church.
Monasticism in the Western Church
The earliest Western forms of monasticism imitated those of the East. Western forms of monasticism spread with Christianity to Ireland, where the church was organized (6th cent.) around the monasteries, which served as centers. In Italy, St. Benedict (6th cent.) began the work from which sprang the Benedictines and the more moderate monastic rule that gradually became universal in the West—even the Celtic foundations assimilating to the Benedictine practice. The role of monasticism in the development of the new civilization of the West is incalculable (see Boniface, Saint, d.754). Monasteries were islands of stability, and their inhabitants, almost alone, preserved learning in the West.
In the 10th cent. there began at Cluny a reform that affected all Europe (see Cluniac order). Out of another reform arose the Cistercians (12th cent.). The Dominicans and Franciscans (early 13th cent.) abandoned enclosure as a principle and with the other friars became a feature in the town life of Europe until the Reformation. Their energy gave the universities and schools definitive form, and they dominate the whole history of scholasticism. At this time such semimonastic groups as the Beghards and Beguines also began to appear all over Europe.
After two centuries of decline, the 16th cent. saw a monastic revival with the founding of the Jesuits (see Jesus, Society of). In the 18th cent. anticlericalism among European governments succeeded in suppressing the Jesuits and in causing another general decline in monasticism. Since the 19th cent., the number of religious orders has been steadily increasing. The Paulists and the Sisters of Charity of Mother Seton are examples of new American communities.
Monks are attached to their monastery, subordinate chiefly to their abbot, and are typically Benedictine; the Cistercians are a class of Benedictines, and the Trappists are a division of the Cistercians. The Carthusians, of a quasi-hermit type, are the only non-Benedictine monks of the West. Canons regular are priests living in a community usually attached to a church; such have been the Lateran canons, the religious of the Alpine pass of St. Bernard, the Premonstratensians, and the old Austin canons (see Augustinians). The rest of the religious orders are highly centralized systems and usually have their work outside their house. The friars are the oldest of this type, chiefly Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Carmelites. Clerks regular are represented principally by the Jesuits, the largest single order in the church today. The communities of priests loosely called ecclesiastical congregations number more than 50; they include the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, the Redemptorists, the Vincentians, and Maryknoll. Religious institutes are separate organizations of unordained persons who have taken vows and who are engaged mostly in teaching, as, notably, the Christian Brothers, founded by St. John Baptist de la Salle. Secular institutes (officially recognized since 1947) are organizations of laymen bound by religious promises; they wear no special garb and, except for special purposes, live separately and hold conventional jobs in the world.
Roman Catholic communities of women are generally smaller and more numerous—there are more than 1,000. There are enclosed nuns following the rule of most orders of monks and friars; they are called second orders. Most Roman Catholic women's communities are devoted to teaching or charitable work; many of them are tertiaries (see tertiary).
The term contemplative is ordinarily applied to the life of monks and nuns who are enclosed, i.e., who rarely leave the monastery or convent in which they live and work, but many unenclosed religious also lead contemplative lives. There are also monastic orders of men and women in the Anglican Church.
See L. Bouyer, The Meaning of the Monastic Life (1955); T. Merton, The Silent Life (1957); D. Knowles, The Monastic Order in England (2d ed. 1963) and Christian Monasticism (1969); C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism (1984); S. Evangelisti, Nuns: A History of Convent Life, 1450–1700 (2008).